“Let me tell you about the very rich,” Fitzgerald once wrote. “They are different from you and me.” He wrote it in a short story, “The Rich Boy”, while he was waiting for The Great Gatsby to be published. It’s worth quoting in full because it’s at the heart of the Gatsby narrative:
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different. ”
This hard, beautifully-written critique of America during the Jazz Age surprises me each time I read it. It surprises me because I think I know what it’s about, and then I find something new in it – something I hadn’t recognized before. This time around what seems most obvious is that this cautionary tale of frustrated ambition and excess might have been written yesterday, it so poignantly mirrors America in the time of Trump.
The story takes place during the summer of 1922, in the prosperous fictional communities of West and East Egg, Long Island. Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate originally from the Midwest, has come to New York and taken a job as a bond salesman. He rents a small house in West Egg, next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby – mysterious because all that is known about him is that he’s very rich and throws extravagant parties which he never seems to attend.
Nick’s second cousin, Daisy, and her husband, Tom Buchanan, live across the bay in fashionable East Egg, home to those with “old” or inherited money. They invite Nick for dinner where he meets Daisy’s girlfriend, Jordan Baker, an attractive professional golfer. While there, Jordan intimates that Tom’s “got some woman in New York”, which later turns out to be true. Returning home that night, Nick sees his neighbour, Gatsby, standing out in the dark, arms outstretched towards the green light at the end of the Buchanan’s pier.
Shortly after this visit, Tom introduces Nick to his mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Myrtle is the wife of a local garage owner, and is about as far removed from the delicate, diaphanous Daisy as it’s possible to be. She and her husband live in a desolate area between the city and the suburbs, known as the valley of ashes, which is dominated by a decaying billboard advertising the services of an opthalmologist called Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of the doctor, reminiscent of those of Orwell’s Big Brother, are “blue and gigantic — their retinas are one yard high.”
Gradually, over the summer, Nick and Gatsby become friends. Nick learns that Gatsby – who used to be James “Jimmy” Gatz – fell in love with Daisy five years ago. Although she married someone else, he never stopped loving her and has dedicated himself to winning her away from Tom. Everything about him – his enormous house, his lavish parties, his unbelievable background story (which is, quite simply, unbelievable) – is geared to impress her. He has come to Long Island and bought this house because he believes he has finally become the kind of man Daisy can marry, the kind of man who will fit into her world – the world of the very rich – the world of privilege.
“The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. . .[He] invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”
In her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, Sarah Churchwell reminds us that “a mirage may be more marvelous in its way than an oasis in the desert. Gatsby’s great error is his belief in the reality of the mirage; Fitzgerald’s great gift was his belief in the mirage as a mirage”. In this way Fitzgerald was more prescient than many of his contemporaries, including Hemingway. Half a decade before the Wall Street crash wiped out the savings of millions of investors and collapsed the fortunes of many of “the great and the good”, he saw the American dream for what it was – an illusion built on hubris and corruption, already in demise.
Having waited without success for Daisy to turn up at one of his parties, Gatsby prevails upon Nick to invite her to tea, without Tom. The meeting is awkward at first, but by the end of the afternoon it seems the intervening years have fallen away and Daisy and Gatsby are reunited. It’s obvious that Gatsby believes it’s just a matter of time, now, before Daisy will leave Tom and come live with him in his mansion; Nick isn’t so sure.
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” he says. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby is incredulous. “Why of course you can.”
What he doesn’t understand, not having been brought up with these people, is that they are meretricious and essentially venal. Nick, who knows them better, describes them best near the end of the book:
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . .”
Myrtle, her husband George, and Gatsby are all “smashed up” in the end. Myrtle is killed by a car driven by Daisy – George, believing Gatsby is responsible, shoots him and then turns the gun on himself. Gatsby’s funeral, arranged by Nick, is attended by a few servants, the mail carrier, and Gatsby’s father. Of all the hundreds of socialites, debutantes, celebrities and freeloaders who came to Gatsby’s parties, only one, a man known as “Owl Eyes”, turns up to pay his respects.
Fitzgerald was disappointed with the response to this, his third novel. “I want to write something new,” he told his editor, Max Perkins, “something extraordinary and beautiful and simple & intricately patterned”. He died at the age of 44 believing himself a failure, his works forgotten. Almost a century later, The Great Gatsby is regularly named as one of the greatest English-language novels and sells millions of copies annually. Had it been just a memoir of the Jazz Age – fun, frivolous and decadent – it might indeed have been forgotten. It’s the tragedy that keeps it fresh, the eternal struggle to be better than we are, the frustrated effort to revive the things we have lost.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”